“Fight till the last gasp” ~ This phrase, commonly used today, was coined by Shakespeare in the history play Henry VI Part I.
My lord, where are you? what devise you on? Shall we give over Orleans, or no?
Why, no, I say, distrustful recreants!
Fight till the last gasp; I will be your guard.
What she says I’ll confirm: we’ll fight it out.
Assign’d am I to be the English scourge. (1)
In Henry VI Part I – Act One Scene Two, Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) rouses the French Army Commanders into action and promises to show unwavering courage and commitment in the battlefield against the English and demands the same from them.
Through Joan Shakespeare invokes the never yielding spirit of a true warrior to keep fighting – even if it is with their last dying breath, and in so doing, coined the now widely used phrase: fight till the last gasp.
Idiom – The moment before death; also, the end (3)
Origin – 1350-1400; Middle English gaspen, equivalent to Old Norse geispa (4)
Today, the ‘fight till the last gasp’ analogy is commonly used in the sporting arena, where sports men and women do battle to the bitter end, never yielding until the final whistle is blown or the chequered flag is waved. Instead of “the vasty fields of France” (5), it is now on the rugby field where you would see France and England battle it out for the spoils of victory in the Rugby Union Six Nations Championship every year.
The unyielding, never say die attitude and strength of will of Shakespeare’s Joan la Pucelle is evoked poignantly in the final lines of Alfred Tennyson’s epic poem Ulysses. This transcendental notion, whether used literally or figuratively, of never giving up and fighting until the end for what you believe in has been a mainstay of our theatrical and cinematic culture. Most recently, Dame Judi Dench as M in the new James Bond film Skyfall, during a government enquiry into the current effectiveness of the British Secret Service, delivers a powerful rendering of Tennyson’s immortal lines:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (6)
As the head of MI6, Dench’s character is alluding to the fact that England’s enemy is no longer visible – no longer a nation that can be fought on a battlefield, but one that lingers in the shadows, and that her department will strive to defend and protect the people in this ever-changing world. (7) Or as Bond himself refers to it earlier in the film, using another Shakespearean phrase – this “brave new world”. (8)
By Linda Nicoll
1. Henry VI Part I [I. ii. 323-328]
2. Diomedia: Copyright ©1999-2013 Diosphere Ltd t/a DIOMEDIA [http://www.diomedia.com/public/15413/25/en/imageSearch.html;jsessionid=0964C69CB491FD7FCBC6CB8958011560.worker2] Accessed 15/01/2013
3. Ammer, C (1997) The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, Boston, MA.
4. Dictionary.com: Copyright © 2013 Dictionary.com, LLC [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/last+gasp] Accessed 15/01/2013
5. Henry V [Prologue. 13]
6. Tennyson, A. T., & Day, A. (1991). Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poems. Penguin Classics. London
7. Skyfall ~ James Bond. Dir. Sam Mendes. MGM. 2012
8. The Tempest [V. i. 2235]